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Collaboration on the Net


Two basic claims can be made about the collaborative character of the Network:

  1. With networked computers, teachers become rather: ``information organizers'', ``tutors'', ``facilitators'' instead of ``information transmitters''.

  2. The Network favors collaborative work, which in turn favors learning (see [Dillenburg et Schneider, 1995])

As it stands now, the WWW is not very well suited for interactive collaborative work. However, remember that the WWW has been designed initially as a collaboration tool between researchers and it is easy to use it in this spirit:

A certain amount of WWW based conferencing and annotation software currently exists (e.g. see the ``WWW Collaboration Projects'' page). Asynchronous collaboration software can easily be built upon the WWW and its cgi-bin extensions. However, currently most of that software is still a bit experimental and it needs to installed by a knowledgeable person. But educators can use the WWW in conjunction with mail, mailing-lists, Usenet News and so forth. Prototypes for synchronous communication such as Web-Chat exist, but besides being experimental they are rather slow.

One of the most exciting recent developments for education are WWW interfaces to MOOs, a variant of text-based virtual worlds.

``A MOO is a network-accessible, multi-user, programmable, interactive system well-suited to the construction of text-based adventure games, conferencing systems, and other collaborative software. Its most common use, however, is as a multi-participant, low-bandwidth virtual reality" Participants (usually referred to as "players") connect to LambdaMOO using Telnet or some other, more specialized, "client" program. Having connected to a character, players then give one-line commands that are parsed and interpreted by LambdaMOO as appropriate. Such commands may cause changes in the virtual reality, such as the location of a character, or may simply report on the current state of that reality, such as the appearance of some object. [....] The job of interpreting those commands is shared between the two major components in the LambdaMOO system: the "server" and the "database". The server is a program, written in a standard programming language, that manages the network connections, maintains queues of commands and other tasks to be executed, controls all access to the database, and executes other programs written in the MOO programming language. The database contains representations of all of the objects in the virtual reality, including the MOO programs that the server executes to give those objects their specific behaviors.'' [Curtis et Nichols, 1993].

MOOs allow for individual users to extend the environment both programmatically, and by ``building'' or creating new objects. In an educational context, this can allow the student to become an active participant in the learning experience. In addition, it is well documented in the literature that MOOs provide a strong sense of ``place'', bringing back some of the advantages of ``campus'' life that is lost in distance education.

A MOO server can also be configured to act as an HTTP server. This means that a WWW browser can be used to look at locations, rooms, people, artifacts, etc. in the MOO. Those objects can have hypertext (URL's) attached and therefore be used to structure information on the Web. Those interested in more details should look at: (information about the author's MOO project) and the WWW-VL library on educational technology cited below for more general information on educational MOOs. See also [Butts et al., 1994] and [Speh, 1994] for a good example on the educational use of a MUD.

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Daniel K. Schneider
Mon Jun 12 18:25:21 MET DST 1995